The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends

By Gerald O. West; Musa W. Dube | Go to book overview

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE READING
[HEARING]?” (ACTS 8:30): THE TRANSLATION AND
CONTEXTUALIZATION OF ISAIAH 52:13–53:12
IN CHITONGA
Ernst Wendland and Salimo Hachibamba

In response to Philip's perhaps unexpected query, the Ethiopian dignitary replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31a, NRSV). This is the answer that many present-day Tonga Christians must also give as they try to read, or simply listen to, the older version of the Bible published in their language.1 There is no doubt in their minds that this is indeed the Word of God (Majwi aa Leza), but why did he choose to communicate with people in language that is so difficult at times to understand and that often sounds as if God speaks with a “foreign accent?”2 To be sure, it is with great gratitude that we note that by the end of 1996 at least a portion of the Bible existed in more than 600 of the estimated 2,000 plus languages spoken in Africa, including 250 New Testaments and 133 full Bibles.3 But many of these Scripture texts are old, and relatively literal, missionary translations, which are often characterized by a form of language that is not completely natural and/or up-to-date in comparison with what is used by the majority of speakers today. In many cases,

____________________
1
The Batonga people (language: Chitonga) number over a million and inhabit as their traditional homeland large parts of the Southern Province in Zambia. The Tonga (for short) are a matrilineal, patrilocal people who may roughly categorized anthropologically as a Southern Bantu, cattle-culture ethnic group. Of course nowadays many Tonga are urban dwellers and engage in various business ventures to earn their living, but the majority still practice farming and herding in rural areas, which include some of the most fertile agricultural areas of Zambia.
2
We use the third person singular masculine pronoun to refer to “God” (as well as to his “servant” in the Isaiah passage) because that is how most receptors view Leza in a Tonga socio-religious setting nowadays. This agrees with a Hebrew perspective on the gender of the supreme deity, “Yahweh.” Moreover, in the case of any new or unfamiliar text, the unmarked third person pronoun is assumed to be male unless the context clearly and explicitly specifies that a female person is being referred to.
3
These statistics are from the most recent World Report published by the United Bible Societies (Reading, England) March 1997, Number 318, page 4. This list includes 13 vernacular Bibles and 6 Testaments in Zambia.

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